St. Clair County Circuit Court Judge Jim Hill sentenced Heather Rich Whitten, 38, of Pell City to five years in prison, but he split her sentence so she will actually serve one year and one day in prison and the remainder of her sentence on supervised probation.
Hill sentenced Whitten after hearing from two witnesses who testified on the defendant’s behalf.
“Heather is a person of great compassion,” said Myra Courtney, who testified for the defense during the sentencing hearing Tuesday.
Courtney, a retired educator, said she did not condone Whitten’s actions, but said it was out of character for the defendant.
She said she watched Whitten grow up in the local church, and knew her as a mother and teacher.
“She would abide by her probation,” Courtney told the judge.
Whitten’s brother, David Rich, also testified at the sentencing hearing on behalf of his sister.
He testified Whitten had no criminal history and described his sister as a “mother, Christian and caregiver.”
Rich said his sister sought help after her arrest and has received professional counseling.
He also said if the judge sentenced Whitten to probation, she would abide by the conditions.
Whitten’s defense attorney, Erskine Funderburg, asked the judge to allow his client to surrender to authorities later in the week.
Hill ordered Whitten to report to the St. Clair County Jail by 9 a.m. Thursday to begin serving her sentence.
“I regret the decisions and mistakes that I have made in regards to this case,” Whitten said in a written statement released after Tuesday’s sentencing hearing. “I accept my punishment and will pay my debt to society. My sincere apologies are extended to all involved, including my family, my friends, and to my hometown of Pell City. With God’s grace and guidance, I am confident that healing will begin for all parties involved.”
In February, Whitten was indicted for second-degree rape, sodomy and enticing a child for immoral purposes.
Assistant District Attorney Lamar Williamson said the state agreed to drop the two additional charges against Whitten, if she pleaded guilty in open court to second-degree rape. In August, Whitten pleaded guilty to the charge.
Williamson said Tuesday he was pleased with Hill’s order, and thought the judge’s sentence was fair and just.
“She (Whitten) was in a position of authority and she knows better than most about the vulnerability of a child,” Williamson said after Tuesday’s sentencing. “There was no justification for a 38-year-old woman to have intercourse with a 13-year-old and certainly not in her position.”
At the time of her arrest, Whitten was a fifth-grade reading and language arts teacher at Williams Intermediate School in the Pell City School System.
Prior to teaching at Williams Intermediate, Whitten taught fourth-grade at Eden Elementary School for three years.
Funderburg said the charges against his client had nothing to do with the Pell City School System or with the school she was employed at the time of her arrest.
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